This has been an article I wanted to write for quite a long time. I had to approach the subject matter with utmost care, because of the intimate nature inherent to this discussion. Naturally, this is going to discuss sexuality in a frank manner. I will mention some personal stuff, but I’ll try to keep it discrete enough so that the emphasis is more on learning from this than indulging in salacious details.
Before I begin proper, I want to put a few disclaimers on this. I am not interested in punishing my former friend with benefits so there will not be a discussion about her. Instead, I want to interrogate the problems I’ve identified with the very model of being a friend with benefits, though I will disclose my emotional state throughout this time.
As I have alluded to, I have engaged in a single friends-with-benefits relationship. This is a model of casual sex between people who are not emotionally invested or committed to a relationship, but remains ongoing so it’s not as transient as your typical one-night stand.
Experts generally agree that this doesn’t work out very well because we’re emotional beings, but I generally find this critique insufficient. There’s always one person out there who says “Oh, other people can’t do it, but I can!”
But, first, let’s get to why this has become an appealing model in the first place.
The Comfort Food of Sex
There’s a certain uncomfortable truth I wish more people would acknowledge: People are scary. One can chalk that to being on the autism spectrum, but even my neurotypical friends have been burned, cheated on, ghosted, dumped, and dropped. There’s a reason that so many people relate to Jessie’s backstory from Toy Story 2. Sometimes people love you until they don’t and that’s a legitimately frightening prospect that I wish more people would respond compassionately to.
One of the things that I’ve also come to understand is that a lot of people are growing up without a working model of how a positive, nurturing relationship is like. There’s a lot of idealization and a lot of fear, unreasonable expectations of perfection from partners to read minds. The seemingly innocuous concept of a soulmate can actually be very damaging to a relationship as if someone if supposedly your soulmate, they must automatically know what you think.
There are many misconceptions that may seem harmless but can actually lead to a lot of emotional damage. In fact, it was because of the naive attitudes towards this that I decided to write this in the first place.
A lot of people are scared, and not without reason. But they don’t get the encouragement to pick themselves up and try again. Better not to risk anything at all.
I could speculate the reasons. Do children grow up without observing adults in a relationship interacting in a way that models good behavior? Is there an impulse to be a helicopter parent?
I would be far more sympathetic to a single parent than helicopter parents. But as time has gone on, I do believe that there needs to be some sort of modeling for how a relationship with other people works. My health textbook had a chapter on it, but it was never discussed in class.
Of course, you could take the approach that I did and just wing it. Even though it’s been a long process, I have learned a lot. Every time, things get incrementally better. I just haven’t gotten to that point yet, and that’s okay.
Of course, the best way to guarantee that the aforementioned point will never be reached is to never try in the first place. That’s what has propelled me forward in difficult times, but I feel that I am the exception in this case. Some people have given up after two or three dates, closing all doors to the very concept of bonding with another person.
But of course, asking teenagers to abstain from sexual intercourse is futile and only exists to satisfy parents instead of helping people understand and embrace their sexuality. This is why loopholes are exploited such as the phenomenon of “saddlebacking”, engaging in anal sex to preserve virginity for religious reasons. Since anal sex requires specific knowledge and care to perform correctly that these teens likely don’t get if they’re buying into this in the first place, this is especially troubling.
The friends with benefits model exists as a happy medium, a way you can have an available sexual partner and not have to take the emotional risk that a more emotionally committed relationship would entail.
An Irreconcilable Antagonism
But that’s not the entirety of it, at least it wasn’t in my case. Part of it was how quickly things escalated into sex, in a way it felt kind of wild. It was a primal embrace of desire that led to me say “Yeah, I’ll just go with it. This seems like fun.” Especially since at the time, I was going through a dry spell, so sex naturally sounded good to me.
I must confess, the feeling of being sexually desirable was also appealing. I consider myself an average man, not in anyway comparable to media hunks. Feeling like I was wanted in a sexual context felt legitimately validating.
But there was a price I paid for the duration of the relationship, fleeting as it was. Since the basis of a friends with benefits relationship is sex without emotional intimacy, there is a fundamental tension that exists within the model.
Some have claimed that you can make a friends with benefits relationship work by being a good communicator, but there’s a problem with that. The more you communicate with your partner, the more you march towards revealing your emotions to them.
But of course, both partners don’t usually feel the same level of affection, otherwise they would be in an emotionally committed relationship. It’s usually one person who begins feeling things, and the other person usually makes the decision to bail. While I leave the possibility open for it to evolve, I find that it is definitely not the norm.
So, there’s the tension. You can’t have a relationship that lasts without communication and you can’t maintain the distance that you want in a friends with benefits relationship if you put the effort into making it work.
There are several outcomes to this. There’s burnout, heartbreak, or making the sex so routine and monotonous that it ceases to have much of the elements of play and pleasure that make it enjoyable in the first place.
How do I know that? Because that’s the standard of success I was presented with when discussing the subject. I did not respond to the individual in question, but I wondered how enjoyable the sex this person was having truly was because it sounded like a chore that was engaged in out of habit or compulsion.
I suppose if that’s what one is aiming for, I can’t really fault them for it. But I will shamelessly admit that “have awesome sex with an awesome person” sounds much more appealing to me, and sex with someone you love is defnitely going to feel better than someone who you don’t.
More than What’s Down There
I remember purposely ignoring red flags during that time. This was because I wanted to preserve the relationship such as it was, by not rocking the boat. What ended up happening as a result is that I compromised on many things, and handed over a lot of power.
Not only, but it became clear through time that I was only interesting in a sexual context since that was the entirety of our activity with only flimsy pretexts to bookend them. It felt like being in a porno where someone is hired to fix a leak that the viewer can notice clearly doesn’t exist.
My intelligence, my personality, none of it ultimately mattered. The process of objectification is often more associated with women feeling objectified, but I certainly felt the absolute sting of being valued for only that one thing. I could be replaced easily, and that was a tremendous source of discomfort.
But I kept lying to myself, thinking that I could do it. I could change this fundamentally broken setup into something better. But I could not, it concluded with heartbreak.
The irony, of course, is that while these arrangements sound appealing with regards to maintaining emotional distance, that clearly what happened is that I was worn down so much emotionally in ways that I never could be in my more traditional relationships. I traded the brief, intense sting of a breakup with an ex-girlfriend to a painful grinding down of my emotional state to the point where I was asking questions about my own value as a human being.
The End of a Long Road
I recognize that this is going to one of my longest articles, if not the longest. But I found that being exhaustive with this topic is better than just giving surface level answers. At this point, I want to offer some reassurance for those who are struggling, those who may be vulnerable to this kind of arrangement, and maybe some guidance about what I learned after this.
People can be scary, but they don’t have to be. Learn how to be friends with people, and you’ll learn the skills that you need to be with someone else. I’m still working on that skill, myself. But it can be done.
There is a freedom that comes from disconnecting from the idea that there is only one person out there for you whom you are destined to find as a soulmate, and that’s the freedom to make mistakes and pick yourself back up because if you found one potential partner you can find another. Take failed relationships as learning experiences, and use it to figure out what you want and what you have to offer.
Most of this is stuff that I’ve learned, and admittedly some of it is stuff that I additionally say because I want to reinforce that in myself. Take baby steps, and you’ll get there. It’s a long, arduous process, but it’s by no means impossible.
Find someone who cares about you. Find someone who loves you. And I assure you, from that point on you’ll have some pretty awesome sex with a pretty awesome person.